Why you should wait to Declare a Major

*this is a companion piece to my other blog, “Myths About Undeclared Majors”.

When I first came to SJU I was undeclared. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what my career should be. Freshman year for me was very informative and helpful.

Entering college undeclared lowered my stress level and eased my transition into college.

For students entering college as a declared major, the stress level and workload can be overwhelming. For example, a science major must endured hours of challenging class work, homework and reading, and lab work, a total of hours almost double to that of a humanities major. This workload is a huge jump from high school’s expectations and requirements.

Couple the intensive workload with balancing a college social life plus a new independent lifestyle and an overworked, stressed-out student can be produced. This kind of stress results in unhealthy habits, like perfectionism and drinking problems, weight issues, and an increased dropout rate (source).

Exposure to a broad array of subjects and educational approaches help students develop as engaged, thoughtful, successful citizens after graduation. A new study shows that giving students’ time to figure out their academic paths actually results in their making better career choices. Ofer Malamud, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, conducted the study for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Malamud tracked graduates from various institutions into the labor market to see how closely aligned their career choices were with the fields in which they specialized in college (source).

According to the study, the undeclared students were more likely to choose study fields that successfully aligned with their career interests. Such success is attributed to the time and freedom undeclared students were given to experiment with a broad range of fields. The extra time used to select a major allows undeclared students to make better choices for themselves. Malamud theorizes that someone who – like he almost did – “specializes too early in mechanical engineering, only to switch to economics, probably would have been better off majoring in economics from the start…. When you specialize later, you can avoid making mistakes, avoid losing skills, and seem to end up better aligned and better matched” (source). Therefore, being undeclared as a first-year student actually increases the odds of finding a long lasting, more fulfilling job after graduation.

Unfortunately, current institutional policies push students into making early commitments to an academic major. Such policies fail to acknowledge the reality of academic uncertainty that exists among the majority of first-year students, and the process of self-discovery that is essential to personal development during the first years of college.

Students’ early decisions are often premature, unrealistic, and uninformed and/or driven entirely by external factors, for example to please parents, maximize income, or satisfy colleges.

A student’s major declaration should be a decision based on a careful contemplation and real understanding of one’s goals and aptitudes, not because of the pressure from an influential third party.

To allow students to successfully enter college as an undeclared student, universities must be extremely supportive. New college policies and advising practices will need to be established to impact students and help influence them to willingly enter college undeclared. It will be necessary for decision-makers to encourage strong incentives for first-year students to meet regularly with their advisors, to promote early academic and career planning by infusing it into the first-year curriculum, and to create experiential learning opportunities for first-year students to endorse early awareness of the realities of work in different careers .  

Overall, findings (and personal experience) strongly suggest that final decisions about majors and careers do not occur before students enter college; rather, students make these decisions during their college experience.

Posted in: Advising & Support, Majors & Minors

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